Apologetic & Other Free Essays
CATHOLICS AND POLITICAL LIFE: A PASTORAL LETTER
by Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes
The respective claims of Caesar and God
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides for the free exercise of religion as well as a prohibition against the country's establishment of any one religion. The free exercise and non-establishment clauses in the Constitution serve to protect the freedom of religion, while recognizing the proper role of government in advancing the common good. In both Sacred Scripture and the United States Constitution, there is a provision to honor the twin duties to obey God and be a responsible citizen. In our own time, we face the tension of these twin responsibilities.
Regardless of our level of participation, responsible citizenship requires that we promote justice, freedom, peace and the common good. Essential to such responsible citizenship is the obligation to promote those laws and policies which respect all of human life.
When Jesus was confronted with the question of the legitimacy of paying the tax to Caesar, he responded by articulating a two-fold principle. The state has the right to collect taxes, for example, in order to provide necessary services and promote domestic tranquility. The Church, guided by revelation and right reason, must speak God's truth in every circumstance. The state can never legitimately deny or suppress these truths. As Peter said when forbidden to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
Our country rightfully values tolerance. True tolerance requires that we bring an authentic respect for the freedom of conscience of each individual person. It does not, however, enjoin upon us the duty to accept competing positions on truth as having equal value or deserving of the same respect. Rightful pluralism is not the same as moral relativism. A society that does not hold to certain fundamental universal truths cannot long endure.
The Role of the Church
The Catholic Church teaches truths of faith and morals. Baptized Catholics have a responsibility to accept the truths of faith and morals which the Church teaches are fundamental for faithful living.
The Catholic Church also teaches fundamental and universal moral truths written on the heart of the human person. The Church has a mission to proclaim in the public square these truths which shed light on the natural moral law. Such a proclamation, when addressing universal moral truth, is not sectarian, but in service to the common good. The contemporary desire to privatize all faith must be resisted. Faith must contribute to and inform public life. To be sure, participation must be characterized by charity, justice and fidelity. What is not acceptable is to ban believers from participation in the shaping of public policy.
Respect for life includes a number of issues: the sacredness of unborn life; the inviolability of the human embryo in the face of some destructive bio-technological procedures; the sanctity of one's own life or the lives of others which forbids suicide, homicide, euthanasia or the removal of ordinary means of human support at the end of life; the difficult question of capital punishment for those guilty of heinous crime; the always problematic decisions regarding war. Each of these life issues is linked to one another by a respect for the dignity and sacredness of human life. Each, however, is subject to a distinctive moral analysis. For example, we can never accept abortion, the destruction of embryonic cells or human cloning, euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. We may not perform an evil act in order to achieve some real or apparent benefit.
We must carefully distinguish these defining issues that touch upon realities that are absolute from those issues about which there is a legitimate exercise of human prudential judgment. For instance, while it is incumbent upon all to preserve a deep respect for human life, there is a role for human prudential judgment in determining whether the conditions that make capital punishment permissible are realized. Our Holy Father and the Bishops in the United States have indicated that in our own time it is usually possible to protect citizens from perpetrators of heinous crime by means that do not require capital punishment. Hence, we should reject capital punishment in most instances, but not necessarily all.
In addressing issues of the pursuit of peace and the moral necessity of protecting a people against violence in military action, there is room for moral assessment whether the conditions for engaging in a military action or the means used to prosecute such action can be morally justified. While it is not permitted to support legislation which violates basic human rights, there is a legitimate freedom for promoting different policies and strategies. While racism is always wrong, human prudential judgment is going to be needed in the development of the best public policy to counteract racist practice in life.
The Co-responsibility of Catholics for Public Policy
Catholics in general, and Catholic politicians in particular, have a responsibility to shape law and policy so as to respect the natural moral law. This law, written in the human heart, is not particular to the Catholic Church but accessible to all persons through right reason.
Because of sin we do not live in a perfect moral world. At times the best we can do is limit some evil. In those instances it is permissible to support legislation which restricts the evil. However, such support is always given with the determination to overcome the sinful situation.
When we are not dealing with fundamental and universal moral truths, but rather with strategies for the protection of human rights, or policies to promote social justice or competing initiatives to secure peace, there is room for differing prudential judgment.
Catholic officials, regardless of political affiliation, who openly support the taking of innocent human life in abortion, euthanasia or the destruction of human embryos, or the re-definition of marriage beyond one man and one woman, cannot call themselves practicing Catholics, and as such should not present themselves for the reception of Holy Communion. Moreover, citizens who want to promote this unjust taking of human life by their support of such candidates or measures share a proportional responsibility for these grave evils. The degree or extent of proportional responsibility will vary from situation to situation.
Come, Holy Spirit
In his stage play, Robert Bolt describes St. Thomas More as a "man for all seasons." His wisdom, knowledge and understanding about how to discern the respective claims of Caesar and God, and his courage in being faithful even at the cost of his own life, make him a patron of those who serve in public life. God grant us all the grace, in these challenging times, to have the wisdom and the courage to "render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."